Diversionary and chauvinistic

Print edition : June 05, 1999

AT a time when a crucial divide seemed to be emerging in Indian politics between those committed to communalism and chauvinistic pseudo-nationalism as a political mobilisation strategy and those broadly committed to secular democracy and the principles e nshrined in the Constitution, the drama ushered in by the Sharad Pawar-led revolt in the principal opposition party meant both a diversion of national attention from issues that matter and a setback to the forces ranged against disintegrative communalism . But the effects and implications of the breakaway of three regional leaders and their sympathisers from the Sonia Gandhi-led Congress(I) do not at all look to be of a transformative kind. The damage Pawar and P.A. Sangma can do to Congress(I) electoral prospects in Maharashtra and parts of the North-East need not be underestimated. However, the assessment offered by the Bharatiya Janata Party's general secretary, M. Venkaiah Naidu, that this political development has brought on a national "triangular contest" between the BJP-led front, the Congress(I), and the Nationalist Indian Congress represents wishful thinking of an absurd kind.

Objectively, the service performed by Pawar, Sangma and Tariq Anwar in raising the banner of revolt within the Congress(I) has been no service either to secular politics or to inner-party democracy. Nor does it significantly improve the prospects of the "third force" in national politics. This is because the three leaders committed the cardinal blunder of making a chauvinistic issue - the issue of the Congress(I) chief's foreign origin - the defining plank of their revolt. No reasonable observer could h ave missed the fact that their demand for a constitutional amendment to the effect that "the offices of the President, Vice President and Prime Minister can only be held by natural born Indian citizens" is virtually the same chauvinistic-demand-with-a-co mmunal-tinge that the BJP and the saffron brigade have been raising since the defeat of the Vajpayee government in the confidence vote. What stands out about the revolt - and has the effect of trivialising it - is that Pawar, Sangma and Anwar have not ex pressed any policy differences of any significance with the Congress(I) leadership.

Sonia Gandhi, an Italian by birth, has following her marriage into the Nehru-Gandhi family resided in India continuously since 1968. In 1983, she became an Indian citizen by naturalisation under the procedure established by the Indian Citizenship Act, 19 55. No evidence has surfaced that there was anything illegal or improper about the grant of citizenship to her under the statute. A Congress(I) press statement revealed that she applied for Indian citizenship on April 7, 1983, got it on April 13, and ren ounced her Italian citizenship on April 27, 1983, so there was no question of her retaining "dual citizenship" that is prohibited by India's citizenship law. There has been no contradiction of this assertion from any official quarters.

There is also no question of Sonia Gandhi's naturalised citizenship inviting any challenge under the 'reciprocity' or 'retaliatory' provision made by the Third Schedule of the Citizenship Act, 1955, namely that the first qualification for naturalisation is that the person is "not a subject or citizen of any country where citizens of India are prevented by law or practice of that country from becoming subjects or citizens of that country by naturalisation." The plain fact is that Italy has a liberal and non-discriminatory policy on citizenship: neither in law nor in practice does it prevent citizens of India from becoming Italian citizens by naturalisation.

What is more pertinent is that the Indian Constitution does not merely make all citizens eligible for public office and specifically for the high elective posts of President, Vice-President and Prime Minister (Articles 58, 66 and 84 do this). It positive ly guarantees "Equality before law" (Article 14) and prohibits discrimination against "any citizen" on the ground, among other grounds, of "place of birth" (Article 15 read along with 16).

And although this is not of any legal or technical relevance, is it the case that the Italian Constitution imposes any restriction on naturalised citizens aspiring for high elective public office? The answer is an emphatic 'No'. Article 51 of that Consti tution reads: "All citizens of either sex are eligible for public office and for elective positions on conditions of equality, according to the requisites established by law." And Article 84 reads: "Any citizen of fifty years of age enjoying civil and po litical rights is eligible for election as President of the Republic." Other Articles make it clear that any citizen is eligible for election to Parliament or to the office of Minister, Prime Minister and so on.

Therefore, it becomes clear that the saffron and now Pawarite objection to Citizen Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin vis-a-vis the real prospect of her becoming the next Indian Prime Minister has no leg to stand on - constitutional, legal, political o r moral. Making this chauvinistic objection an election issue seems to be an admission that the prospects of BJP & Allies in the thirteenth general election are not bright.

Criticism of and opposition to the Congress(I) as the leading force in the non-BJP camp, the prospective leader of the next elected government, must be developed on grounds of ideology, policy and practice. Criticism of the dynastic principle in Congress (I) affairs, of coteries, sycophancy and rough arm methods, and of the deficiencies in inner-party democracy is legitimate - provided the ideology-policy-practice perspective remains in command. The reality is that Citizen and Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, however untested her political and policy-making mettle, has over the past year led a striking resurgence of the party that poses the principal challenge to the BJP in the Indian electoral arena. There can be little question that she commands th e support of the party rank and file and of the masses that are with the Congress(I) in various States. Targeting her foreign origin, apart from being chauvinistic and anti-constitutional, is an intimation of political weakness, not of strength.

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